In all likelihood, the Republicans will lose the presidency on Nov. 8, signaling a period of deep reflection and hand wringing by party leaders. The same fundamental question will arise this year as it did in 2008 and 2012. “Where did we lose our way, and how can we get back on track?” The answer may lie in the most unlikely place you would think – progressive, left-leaning Millennials.
Because of their sheer size and their tendency to mobilize as a cohesive generation, Millennials will be the dominant force in American politics through 2048. The youngest Millennials still aren’t old enough to vote, but their older siblings are already making their mark. It is estimated that Millennials will represent one-third of the electorate in the next presidential election, and nearly 40 percent for a 20-year period after that. The party that wins the hearts and minds of the Millennials will be the dominant political party for the next 30 years.
Only 22 percent of Millennials identify themselves as Republicans, according to Harvard’s most recent IOP poll. This compares with 40 percent identifying as Democrats. The same survey found that Hillary Clinton held a 36-point advantage over Donald Trump, unprecedented by any measure.
Some Republican friends I’ve talked to are not so alarmed by the party’s future because, they say, “Everybody gets more conservative as they age.” However, research suggests that long-term presidential voting patterns change very little after peoples’ formative years. Some of the most comprehensive work in this area has been done by researchers at Columbia University. Time is not on the GOP’s side.
Millennials may have disliked Trump, but there was no love lost for Clinton. During the campaign, it was hard to watch Clinton’s scripted and awkward courting ritual with Millennials. Millennials I talked to would say to me, “I wish she would just say what is on her mind as opposed to what she thinks we want to hear.” The fact is that they are not strongly attached to either party, and Republicans have an opening, but they need to move quickly. The GOP needs to lead an all-out effort to engage Millennials on what matters most to them, and reframe the party by its core strengths, not the weaknesses of the opposing party.
Millennials like using innovative ideas to solve big problems, but unlike their Boomer parents, they don’t believe that “the government” and “the private sector” is an either-or proposition. They don’t want to nuke the government, as some Generation X Tea Party proponents advocate; they want a smarter, more efficient government to partner with the private sector. They don’t necessarily want the government out of people’s lives; they just want a government that works better.
Elon Musk, the visionary, Libertarian-leaning free enterprise entrepreneur is something of a cult hero with Millennials. They love that he is taking a private sector approach to our energy problems by investing in a solar infrastructure, but few Millennials associate Musk’s underlying assumptions as a fundamentally conservative framework. This is a branding problem Republicans needs to address.
If Elon Musk has struck a nerve with Millennials it is also because of his attitude and tone. Barack Obama’s popular 2008 youth brand (“Yes we can!”) really worked for Millennials. It taught us that they are a generation that is inspired by optimism, not scorched-earth obstructionism. “Millennials are looking for a leader that will set a forward-thinking agenda, approach problems with a can-do attitude, and do not express nostalgia for bygone eras they have never experienced,” says Neil Howe, the demographer and economist that gave Millennials their name. They believe what you stand for is more important than what you stand against.
The GOP needs to press the reset button, and turn their attention to the largest generation in U.S. history. Millennials want an ambitious, innovative, and optimistic approach to addressing tomorrow’s problems. They are a consensus-driven generation looking for an inspiring leader with a positive vision of the future. If that leader is a Republican, the party has a shot at shaping the political landscape for the next 30 years. Oh – and if she is a non-white Millennial, that’s even better.
Warren Wright writes, speaks and consults on the Millennial generation. He is president of CoachingMillennials, a company whose mission is to prepare the next generation of leaders. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.